Birds protect eggs and chicks

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AFTER that long run of dry weather, at last we’ve had some rain to soak the ground and help to extinguish some of the destructive wildfires.

The rain came just in time to save the crops, though some places haven’t had as much as they’d have liked. And with Yorkshire’s water reserves described as being below average levels, we still need plenty more.

Many birds now have growing youngsters in the nest and both parents are out hunting for food.

This is a dangerous time, when an unguarded nest can fall prey to a grey squirrel, crow or magpie searching for eggs or chicks to feed its own offspring.

Collecting mania

At least human nest-robbers are rare these days. But when birds were more numerous than they are now, nobody thought it wrong to collect their eggs.

Many small boys, for it was usually boys, would have a collection of birds’ eggs in their bedroom. Some famous naturalists started out this way, their fascination for different shell colours and patterns developing into a lifelong love of birds.

While some species lay plain eggs of white, brown or blue, others produce subtly coloured eggs with blotches or spots.

Ground-nesting birds do this, and they’re so successful at blending their clutch into the surroundings that the eggs are almost impossible to spot.

Sometimes the specks have nothing to do with camouflage.

Laying an egg a day for six days, as some birds do, depletes the reserves of calcium that’s needed to make strong shells. So the coloured material appears as speckles where the shell is thinnest, helping to strengthen it.

Perhaps the strangest patterns are found on the yellowhammer’s eggs. The scribbled marks, which look a bit like writing, gave the bird the popular name “Scribe”.

But the marks were also said to be magic symbols that would turn the embryo chicks into snakes. Because of this, gangs of boys persecuted the poor yellowhammer and destroyed its nest.

A few birds were more fortunate. Nobody interfered with a robin’s eggs because if they did, their thieving hand would develop a tremor, or their house would burn down.

Swallows and house martins brought good fortune to the buildings where they built their nests, so they were protected. Kingfishers were lucky birds too and were therefore left alone.

Today egg collecting is illegal and socially unacceptable, with good reason.

Many bird species are already under intense pressure from various factors, without us raiding their nests.

For example the yellowhammer, a bird that likes open country with tall hedges and a supply of seeds and insects, has declined so much in the last 30 years that it is on the RSPB’s Red List.

Hen’s teeth

Though hen’s eggs were common, they’ve still managed to attract their own folklore.

Many people believed it was unlucky to bring hens’ eggs into the house after sunset, or to take them out. Farmer’s wives avoided burning eggshells, for fear it caused their hens to stop laying.

When setting eggs to hatch, this should be done under a waxing moon, but not on a Friday or Sunday. It was believed an even number of eggs would produce only cockerels, so a clutch had to consist of an odd number, like 13. In areas by the sea, eggs must be set during an ebb tide if they were to hatch out as hens.

Most curious of all was the “cock’s egg”. This was a small egg without a yolk laid by an old hen, and was so called because elderly hens sometimes grow male plumage.

The cock’s egg was thought very unlucky. If it were allowed to hatch it would produce a cockatrice, a deadly creature with a dragon’s body and a cockerel’s head that could kill with one glance. Should you happen to come across a cockatrice, remember that there’s only one way to destroy it. The monster must be tricked into seeing its own reflection, which it will fight to the death.